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Chasing Love: Chapter 32

CHARLIE

Present

Eric clutches my hand tight, rushing me along the busy streets attempting to reach the restaurant in record speed. Easy for him since he’s wearing flats. My new Jimmy Choo shoes are getting scuffed which doesn’t impress me one bit.

“Eric, seriously, can you slow down,” I cry, struggling to keep up.

“I just don’t want to be late. Tango will bump you off if you aren’t on time.”

Tango is a very upbeat Spanish restaurant in Chelsea. As a treat for my birthday, Eric is taking me to dinner. I’m more than happy to stay at home and drown myself in my sorrows, but Eric suggests a day full of ‘us’ time—shopping, massages, pedis, and of course, dinner at the best restaurant to show off our newly dressed and pampered bodies.

“Here we are!”

We walk into the restaurant where crowds of people are standing in the bar area waiting to be served. All the tables are taken from what I can see, and guilty of slowing us down, I’m praying our reservation still stands.

“Sir, madam, please let me escort you to your table.”

The waiter leads us through the crowd, passing the tables which are all occupied. I nudge Eric, shrugging my shoulders with a confused expression. I bet the table is somewhere at the back, next to the kitchen and restroom. Oh, well, at least they have karaoke after ten. The waiter pulls a large velvet maroon curtain aside, followed by a loud, “Surprise!”

My hand clutches my chest as my mouth falls open in shock. Standing around a huge table is Nikki and Rocky, Adriana and Elijah, Emma, Becky, a new assistant in our office, Julian, and of course, Lex. My eyes dart back and forth, panic rising in my chest.

Julian and Lex in the same room?

I’m going to strangle the person who planned this.

Eric.

He’s dead to me.

Forcing a smile and ignoring the knots forming inside my stomach, I push aside these thoughts for a moment. Aside from the confrontational aspect of Julian and Lex in the same room again, the way Lex and I left things off is unfinished. We haven’t spoken to each other since the fight in my office. He hasn’t tried to contact me, and I’m too damn stubborn to contact him.

“Wow, you guys, this is… unbelievable.” I sigh, taking it all in. “You really shouldn’t have.”

Time of death, Eric—after this party is over.

My eyes scan the room, admiring the emerald green balloons covering the ceiling. It almost looks like St. Patrick’s Day if you didn’t know it’s my favorite color.

“Isn’t it? Nikki came up with the idea and invited everyone,” Eric rushes, quick to point the finger at the child who deserves to be in the naughty corner.

I glance at Nikki with dagger eyes. Her face contorts into a devious grin, knowing the game she’s playing with my so-called love life. I could strangle her with my bare hands. How on earth will I get through this night in one piece? I eye the bottles of sangria sitting on the table, calculating how many will it take before it all becomes one big blur. My momentary plan to escape is interrupted as one by one each of them comes up to wish me a happy birthday.

“Happy birthday, hot stuff!” Rocky squeezes me tight, lifting me high. His hugs are suffocating only because of his large frame. He lets me go, allowing me to catch my breath.

Adriana hugs me next. “Char, happy birthday! Seriously, you’re rocking this Dior dress.”

“I know, right?” I beam, running my hands along the fabric. “I also bought it in blue.”

“Don’t even think about borrowing it, Adriana. I called it first.” Nikki pulls up beside her. She leans in, hugs me tightly, whispering in my ear, “Surprise. Betcha didn’t see this coming.”

“I’m so ready to kill you right now.” I grit my teeth. “Payback will be sweet, my friend.”

“Let the games begin,” she continues with a smirk.

It’s going to be one hell of a long night.

I start getting fidgety knowing I’ll have to say hello to Lex sooner or later. It has only been three days, eighteen hours, and ten minutes since the last time he touched me. Shit, I need to put things in perspective. Since when does my vagina rule my life? Don’t answer that question.

Julian is standing before me, breaking me from my sadistic thoughts about Lex. He looks so dashing in his dark jeans and black sweater.

Can he see the guilt in my eyes?

Can he feel the touch of another man lingering on my skin?

Smile and just act normal.

“Happy birthday, gorgeous.” He wraps his arms around me holding me close before slowly letting go to kiss my lips. All around us, eyes are watching, some with adoration, and others with contempt.

“Thank you. You forgot the cape again?”

“I’m saving that for the end of the night,” he whispers in my ear.

My body flushes at the sound of his voice. I don’t know how this night will end, or who it will end with. I avoid eye contact with Lex because no doubt he’s pissed right now. To quote him, ‘he doesn’t share.’ Not that I am his, but try telling him that.

I continue to receive hugs from the others, of course, the last being Lex. He stands in front of me wearing black jeans, a blazer, and a charcoal gray shirt. His mop of messy hair is gloriously styled, his chiseled jaw grinning at me, his eyes lighting up the whole room. He’s sex on legs, I can’t deny that. I try my best to keep my cool, worried Julian is watching us interact.

Yet all I want to do is lay him on the table, pour sangria all over his cock while I suck him off nice and slow.

You only want what you can’t have, Charlie.

“I guess I better hug the birthday girl,” he says, leaning in to hug me.

I wrap my arms around his neck, inhaling his scent, careful not to close my eyes. The eyes are always the giveaway.

“That dress isn’t helping the fact that I want to fuck you right now,” he whispers.

“Is that a challenge, Mr. Edwards?”

I pull away from his embrace, trying not to linger while I leave him standing with a perplexed expression. I shouldn’t have said it, still angry at him for what he did, but my brain is all up in that sex cloud trying to climb its way out, and unfortunately, not in time for me to respond with something more appropriate.

We all sit at the round table. Julian is seated on my left and Nikki on my right. Lex sits directly opposite me next to Adriana and Becky. Becky already looks like she’s hyperventilating. Why Nikki hired her is beyond me, or for that matter, even invited her. Yeah, she’s hot for a twenty-two-year-old. Damn, I feel old now. I try not to watch her interact with Lex, but I can’t stop myself. I pretend to be looking around at the restaurant and people, but when I make my way back to concentrating on the guests at my table, I glance at them again.

The waiters rush to our table filling our glasses with sangria which prompts Nikki to tap her fork against her glass gaining everyone’s attention.

“I’d like to propose a toast to the birthday girl, my best friend,” she announces. “You have given me eight wonderful years of friendship, and there’s no one else in the world who can put up with my shit like you do. Oh, except for you, babe.” Rocky raises his glass, proud of his pussy-whipped status. “For something fun, I want everyone around the table to tell their story of how they met Charlie. I’ll start with Rocky and me.”

Oh God. Clumsy, awkward, Charlie stories aren’t on my list of things to reminisce about.

“We met Charlie during our first year of college. She was to be my roommate. It was Friday afternoon, and she wasn’t supposed to arrive till Saturday morning.” She laughs, shaking her head. I join her, knowing exactly how this story will go. “Well, Rocky and I decided to take advantage of our last day alone together. It was also the first time we decided to, um, experiment with a few things.”

I start laughing harder, the embarrassment still fresh in my mind.

“Anyway, Charlie had arrived early and walked in on us, Rocky tied up to the bed with a blindfold and chocolate sauce dripped all over him. I was shocked but not as much as she was. She freaked out and ran from the room, straight into the door. Her nose was bleeding and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help her, but Rocky was tied up, and I had to untie him. I stood there naked, rushing between the two of them, covered in chocolate as well.”

The whole table is laughing hard, Rocky’s in tears from the hilarity.

“I gave Charlie a hard time after that but soon learned it was impossible to hate her. She became my best friend, supported me through the birth of Will, gave us the honor of being his godmother, and helped me follow my dream professionally. I couldn’t have done it without you, Charlie.” She raises her glass again before leaning over to hug me tightly.

“For the record, I’d like to point out that Rocky was tied to what was supposed to be my bed. I couldn’t sleep without nightmares for weeks.” I chuckle.

“Better than the time you walked in on us in the kitchen,” he roars.

“Oh gee, Rocky, it took me years and hundreds of dollars in therapy to forget that. The moral of this story is always close your eyes and knock on a door when you visit Rocky and Nikki.”

The whole table is laughing hysterically. Rocky continues to ramble on about his sexual conquests until Nikki punches his arm, reminding him she’s sitting right beside him.

“Me next!” Adriana raises her hand like an overeager first grader. She stands, holding her glass like it’s a wedding toast or something. The image alone already makes me want to burst out laughing.

“I met Charlie at school. We were both in middle school. It was my first day having moved from Chicago. I was eight and going through this stage of wanting to look like Blossom.”

“Oh-em-gee, I loved her!” Eric bursts out. Of course, he did.

“Anyway, I was a little upset that day because no one would talk to me. It came around to lunchtime, and I sat at the table alone. She came over to say hello. I knew her name was Charlotte because I thought it was such a beautiful name. She had long brown hair and these big brown eyes. I was envious given that I had a short bob cut, not at all like Blossom. She asked me if she could sit down and introduced herself before reaching into her bag to grab her lunchbox at the same time I did. We pulled out our lunchboxes which both had Joey Lawrence on them. It was a match made in heaven.” She smiles, her eyes glassy. “From that moment, I knew I had a best friend in her.”

A hint of sadness enters her story, but quickly trying to change the tone, I ramble on about Blossom. “Our friendship didn’t help kill the Blossom obsession, that’s for sure.”

Lex shakes his head, grinning. “If I had to watch another episode or hear Adriana talk any more about it, I was going to go insane. I remember she had a shirtless Joey Lawrence poster stuck on the ceiling above her bed. Dad made her remove it, and she cried for like a week.”

“I totally forgot about that,” Adriana gasps. “When Dad made me take it down, we put it up in Charlie’s room above her bed. That lasted one night before Charlie’s dad made her take it off.”

I nearly spit out my wine remembering what happened next.

“The next afternoon, my dad and Dr. Edwards gave us the birds-and-bees talk. That it was inappropriate for young girls our age to be looking at older boys shirtless. It was so funny. Two grown men trying to explain to us in simple terms, and Adriana, of course, kept asking technical questions.”

I broke out into laughter, the whole table following. Adriana was such a big part of my childhood, and I missed her so much. She gets up from her chair and walks over, embracing me tightly. I don’t want to let go, and when I feel a tear fall down on my shoulder, I do what any best friend would do, I tell her not to ruin her makeup.

“I hate to break it to you guys but she still has a crush on him. Although no poster over our bed.” Elijah laughs.

“Hello, he’s a DILF!” Adriana blurts out.

Emma raises her brows, curious. “DILF?”

“Dad I’d like to fuck,” Eric answers instead of Adriana.

“Okay, okay. Enough about me.” Adriana raises her hands in the air, then turns to face Julian. “How about you, Julian? How did you meet Charlie?”

I’m surprised she asks given that Lex will give her an earful later, but if there’s anyone who’ll put up with his shit, it’s Adriana.

Lex’s shoulders stiffen, obviously not wanting to hear the story. I watch him gaze at me intently like he’s trying to read my mind or something. Julian drapes his arm around me causing Lex to adopt a sullen look. He clenches his napkin into a ball, shifting his gaze to the table.

This is the calm before the storm.

I’m waiting for him to lose it.

It’s only a matter of time.

“Nothing like you guys, considering it was only three months ago. We met at our local gym. I had seen her working out. I mean, she’s gorgeous, it’s impossible not to spot her. That day, I decided to go talk to her. I walked over, and the first thing she said if I recall correctly was, “Um… yeah, go for it. I’ve wiped it down and everything, so like you don’t have to worry about sweat or rashes. Wait, is a sweat rash why we’re supposed to wipe it down, or can you catch like herpes? Look, I don’t know anything about herpes, so can we forget I ever mentioned that?”

“Oh my God, Charlie, you didn’t say that.” Rocky claps his hands, chuckling loudly. “And for the record, sweaty chicks are hot.”

The table erupts into laughter again, everyone except Lex. The embarrassment is overwhelming. To this day I can’t believe I said that. I’m usually fine around guys, but the moment he walked up to me, I acted like a fifteen-year-old girl meeting One Direction.

“Um, yes, actually I did. Much to my embarrassment.” I blush.

“Aw, Charlie, it sounds like love at first sight,” Nikki pouts, obviously trying to provoke Lex. I kick her under the table which is followed by an ouch and a what-did-you-do-that-for look.

“That’s why I wanted to make her my wife. You’d be stupid to let a woman like this go,” Julian gushes, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek.

With every fiber in my being, I try desperately not to make eye contact with Lex, but I slip and meet his eyes. There’s no denying he’s furious, but Lex is an expert at the classic poker face. Willing, he will make sure his feelings aren’t shown through his facial expressions. He may be staring with a blank face, but his eyes reveal his true feelings. They are dark, reflecting his mood. I know him better than anyone else. And truthfully, he can say the same for me.

I don’t know what to do, so I drink because drunk Charlie is better than anxious Charlie. There’s no way I can pull him aside for a moment without Julian questioning what I’m doing. And besides, this isn’t the place to talk. Too many eyes, too many ears, and way too much of a chance of getting caught.

“Okay, me next, please,” Eric chimes in.

How many glasses of sangria has he had? Judging by the loudness of his voice, I’d say at least four, and by five, he will be up on the table dancing. I swear he’s such a cheap drunk.

“We met about eighteen months ago. She rear-ended me.”

Rocky burst out laughing, spitting out his drink. “Dude, is that even possible?”

“Her cab, Rocky.” Eric sighs, trying to hold in his laughter. “So, as the cab driver got out and argued whose fault it was, Charlie started ranting on about being late for work. I argued, of course, saying it wasn’t as bad as me as I was going to be late for an interview. Another cab pulled up behind us, and we both rushed at the same time to get in. I beat her to it, shutting the door quickly as the cab pulled away. I leaned out the window, and I recall my exact words… ‘Sorry, honey, you can stomp your pretty little Louboutins all you want, but you ain’t making me late.’”

“Oh, Eric, please don’t tell me this was your interview to work for Charlie?” Adriana squirms.

“Spot on. I sat there in her office pleased with myself for being on time. As she rushed in all huffed, I was shocked and the look on her face? Priceless.”

“But I hired you, anyway,” I remind him. “Like my left arm, I can’t live without you.”

He stands, rushing to my side. There’s no one in the world like Eric, and my life has never been the same since. “My yin to your yang.”

The fun continues with the rest of the guests taking turns telling everyone how they met me. The sangria keeps flowing, and my glass keeps emptying. I have officially lost count, but at least my nerves are calming and now I’m starting to get giggly.

“Oh-em-gee, Lex, we can’t skip you,” Eric exclaims.

“I don’t think I can remember when you first met Charlie…” Adriana says quietly.

Lex takes a sip of the sangria. My mind is hazy, trying to even remember when we first met. I sit still, focusing intently on him.

“I was fifteen. I had pretty much spent the summer working my ass off for this collectors Batman comic I had seen in a store in Sacramento.” His eyes are fixated on the table again, with his fingers skimming the rim of the glass in front of him. “I finally saved up and bought it and went to our living room to read it. Adriana was in there watching TV and eating the last of a baked cookie. She and I got into a fight as siblings tend to do, so I decided since it was a nice day out, I’d go up to our treehouse and read it. I climbed up and found a little girl crying in the corner. I hadn’t met Charlotte yet, but Adriana raved on about her all the time, so I assumed it was her.”

My heart stops, knowing exactly the moment he’s referring to, and the pain I had felt at the time when I thought my world was collapsing. I was a kid, but it didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. It was the first huge fight my parents had after which my mom stormed out and left for three days.

“I sat down beside her to ask if she wanted to talk. She was upset about her parents having a big fight. I remember her asking me if she should go look for her mom. I was only fifteen, so giving a kid advice was hard. I remember telling her that it would somehow work out. She saw me carrying the comic and said Batman was her favorite superhero of all time, so I did what anyone would do when they see her smile.”

“You gave her the comic?” Nikki asks, her eyes widening.

“Yes, I gave her the comic. She looked so happy.”

“I can’t believe you did that,” Adriana and Nikki say in unison.

For once, he appears shy. Alexander Edwards is never shy. His eyes meet mine, a corner of his mouth lifting up into a half-smile. I can’t believe he did that. I remember the comic book. I’d read it every night. Batman was my favorite. How ironic with the whole Julian thing going on. At the time, I didn’t know how hard he worked for it, and maybe if I had known, I wouldn’t have allowed him to give it to me. But I was only young, and he was my best friend’s brother, no one special, just someone who annoyed us and hogged the remote when we wanted to watch television. The gesture was so kind-hearted, but that was Lex.

Was, I have to remind myself.

Julian interrupts the moment, raising his glass and wishing me a happy birthday. My friends cheer, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t get that story out of my head. It’s almost like a scene out of a movie. I was staring at it, watching people around me, but no matter how hard I try I can’t focus. All I think about is that comic book and what it represented.

Everyone is laughing, enjoying each other’s company. The salsa band is playing a soft Spanish beat. The food arrives and looks fantastic. We each pile the food onto our plates, getting lost in random conversations. The weight of Julian’s arm on my shoulder weighs like a ton, with his need to constantly touch me greater than other times we have been together.

I take a sip of my sangria and slowly glance at Lex, careful not to be caught by Julian. My heart plunges as I watch him chatting with Becky. She loves the attention, and he looks happy speaking about something I can’t hear.

My blood begins to boil.

What’s this feeling called again?

Oh right, jealousy.

Lex glances up and catches me looking at him, his lips pressed firmly together. So, he wants to play games. I lean over to Julian, snuggling myself in his side. His lips brush against my ear as he whispers sweet words followed by dirty ones.

Unable to control my cheeks from flushing, my eyes carelessly wander to Lex. His now dark eyes are piercing through a vicious stare, his face tightening as he tries to intimidate me from across the table.

We battle for how long I don’t know, until he leans over to Becky, whispering something in her ear before standing and walking away from the table.

I can’t leave, not now, not without raising suspicion with Julian. As my fingers tap the table repeatedly, Julian places his hand on mine to calm me down.

“You seem anxious?”

“Me?” I say, over the music. “I’m fine. Just a lot of sangria and the need to burn it off.”

Julian plays with my engagement ring, his expression fixed. I’m waiting with bated breath for him to ask me about Lex. Inside my head, I’m trying to come up with answers to satisfy him, but nothing is worthy.

“We haven’t seen each other much…” he trails off, unable to make eye contact. “Not since the charity ball.”

“We’ve both been busy. I promise it’ll get better. Even you said we needed to find our groove.”

“Yes,” he lifts his gaze to meet mine, lips pressed firmly with a penetrating stare. “When we get married.”

I swallow repeatedly, hyperaware of my reaction to the word ‘marriage.’ Just as I’m about to say something, Adriana walks over to me, almost as if she can sense my discomfort.

“Char, come to the bathroom with me?”

Julian forces a smile, gesturing for me to go. Elijah is sitting on the other side of him and he uses the opportunity to discuss an article Julian wrote about the Haiti government.

Adriana grabs my hand, guiding me through the tables as we walk to the opposite side of the restaurant where the bathrooms are located. She stops before we get there, pulling her phone out of her Louis Vuitton purse. Excusing herself, she walks toward the exit to answer the call.

The restaurant is noisy, and as I stand here by myself, I decide to find Lex and ask him what his problem is. As I walk into the hallway where the bathrooms are lined, he exits the men’s room, surprised to see me.

I push his chest, angry for so many reasons. “What the hell is your problem, Lex?”

“Charlotte, don’t do this here, or you’ll regret it.”

“Regret what?”

He pulls me into another bathroom marked for private staff only. Within seconds, he locks the door and pins me against it. “I warned you,” he breathes, inches away from my lips.

With fire burning in his eyes, I know no matter how angry or hurt I am over our past and present, the control Lex has over me is far greater.

We’re fire and gasoline, a deadly combination ready to explode without a moment’s notice.

And the terrifying part is, I have no control around him.

I’m holding the match, watching him pour the gasoline, ready to watch us burst into flames. Again.


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